Mr. Chávez has for the past decade and a half so dominated the identity of the oil-rich, Andean nation that the political current of his supporters bears his name: chavismo.
Venezuelans poured into the Plaza Bolivar last night, where many cried and hugged campaign posters and photos of their leader. Car horns blared in the background as a chant rose from the crowd: “The people united will never be defeated.”
Chávez held onto his office for 14 years, maintaining his grip through a 2002 coup attempt and winning reelection four times, most recently with with 55 percent of the vote in October.
But as much as he was loved, he was also loathed by a large swath of Venezuelan society.
Before Chávez was elected to office in 1998, rich and poor alike in Venezuela were disenchanted with a political elite they considered corrupt and self-serving. Chávez, who emerged on the political scene after leading a failed coup attempt in 1992, became branded in the minds of the nation as the answer for a more just and democratic society. As he uttered the words that his movement had failed only “por ahora,” or “for now,” he set the stage for his rise to power six years later.
His presidency, from 1999 to 2013, coincided with record-high oil prices, which produced revenue that he tapped for social programs to bring Venezuela's long-marginalized poor into public life. The cornerstone of that were his “misiones,” which taught reading to illiterate adults, brought subsidized food into “barrios,” or slums, and created community councils to bring national decisions to the people.
But to his critics, these moves were merely electoral ploys that squandered the nation's oil wealth. More people might be participating in Venezuelan democracy, but the cornerstone of democracy – institutions – were coopted by the state under Chávez, they say. The president delivered on his promise for social inclusion, but he roundly excluded his political opponents, calling them the “fetid oligarchy.”
Worse, the economy has been left in shambles. Over the course of the Chávez administration, many well-educated Venezuelans fled the country to start businesses and careers in more economically sound environments. Crime also skyrocketed, with 73 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence.
Perhaps his legacy is the two very different views of Venezuela that emerge depending on who is asked what his lasting impact will be.
Venezuela, post-Chávez, is more equal and more democratic, says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “In spite of its problems, the country, by any standard political science measure, was more democratic [under Chávez] than it ever was before,” Mr. Weisbrot says. “That’s why he kept getting reelected.”
But for Caracas-based political analyst Jose Vicente Carrasquero, Chávez’s legacy is one of irrationality – politically, economically, and socially.
“He came in on a horse promising that he was going to be the solution,” says Mr. Carrasquero.“But we are in a much worse situation than we had before.”
Chávez's staying power was rooted in demographics and oil. Venezuela is a poor nation that was satisfied with Chávez's spending of petrodollars. “Chávez had the numbers,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
He garnered 50 to 60 percent of votes in elections – losing only once in a referendum to change the Constitution in 2007. (He later pushed through another version of that constitutional amendment in 2009, winning indefinite reelection for presidents.)
“The poor remember that no Venezuelan government ever cared for them or nurtured them or provided them with resources, and although Chávez is a lot of ‘blah blah blah,’ he also is a guy who has come through for [the poor],” Mr. Birns says.
“I always had hope that he was going to recover,” says Maria Marta, an anthropologist in Caracas who rushed to the Plaza Bolivar directly from work when she heard the news of the president’s death. “But in the end he sacrificed himself for the people.”
Sense of empowerment
Many of the once disenfranchised found new political power during Chávez’s leadership, which the president’s passing will not take away, no matter who holds power in the future. Opposition candidates in the primary in the October 2012 presidential race all promised to continue Chávez's emphasis on social inclusion – underscoring the fact that such a stance is considered essential to winning a race in Venezuela, or anywhere else in Latin America, today.
While he holds a place in history for starting the so-called “leftist tide” in Latin America in the beginning of this century, Chávez has left behind a nation far more polarized than that of its neighbors across the region. He ridiculed students protesting his moves as “rich bourgeois brats” and in his last political race he called his opponent “a low-life pig.” At worst, he co-opted the justice system to buoy his own supporters and closed down opposition media outlets that spoke out against him.
International groups such as Human Rights Watch have increasingly condemned what it considers a deterioration of democracy and impunity in the Andean nation. “Venezuela is not an electoral democracy,” wrote Freedom House in its 2011 report. “While the act of voting is relatively free and the count is fair, the political playing field favors government-backed candidates, and the separation of powers is nearly nonexistent."
"After so many years it looks like there might finally be change in this country," says Roberto Gonzalez, a systems engineer in Caracas. “You can never be happy about the death of a human being … but after everything this country has been through it might be justified.”
Hit with international criticism, Chávez always struck back with claims that international groups were working with the “imperialists,” or his long-time foe the United States. Chávez made the cornerstone of his time in office a “freer” Latin America. His hero was the 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar, whose face adorns public works across Caracas. Chávez poured petrodollars and petroleum itself into countries such as Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, poor, leftist nations dependent on his largesse.
He created the Bolivarian Alliance, better known as ALBA, a bloc of leftist Latin American nations united to counter the economic weight of international groups like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“He has had a huge impact on Venezuela and the region and the world,” says Mr. Weisbrot. “He made Venezuela a much more independent country, and made South America more independent of the US than Europe is today.”
Chávez was an eccentric leader with an indefatigable energy that turned press conferences into marathon monologues. He often broke out into song and poked fun at himself during his Sunday call-in talk show “Alo Presidente," or "Hello, Mr. President." He spoke on impulse, outside the standards of a statesman. He called his No. 1 enemy, former US President George W. Bush, a donkey and the devil.
US diplomats largely ignored Chávez’s tirades, even as conservatives in the US warned that he posed a much greater threat, especially in light of his relationship with Iran, Syria, and other rogue nations.
Chávez took some of his verbal assaults too far, with many leaders over time considering him a liability. To be painted as the “Chávez” of a certain country meant alienating voters. Instead, leftist candidates campaigned on following the footsteps of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was committed to the poor but also the macroeconomic stability of his country.
As oil prices dipped and domestic problems grew, such as crime, Chávez lost some of the political capital he used to play regional leader. As he fell ill, he moved even further to the sidelines.
But at his peak, he will be remembered as an important figure in Latin American politics.
“You can fault him for not effectively administering his revolution and not staying more in his office and counting up his numbers … but certainly he was one of the more attractive figures in modern Latin American history. Chávez was a pretty good hombre,”says Birns.
Jorge Piñon, research fellow at the Center for international Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas in Austin, says, however, that while he will be remembered as a larger-than-life figure, his legacy as a political teacher is far more uncertain.
“Historically we will know who Chávez was ... but I doubt if [his] philosophies or teachings will have any impact on the way future generations in Venezuela behave,” Mr. Piñon says.
- Andrew Rosati contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.
Editor's note: This story was amended to change the description of Mark Weisbrot's affiliation.